Landmark Ruling in Strasbourg as MPs Challenge UK Government over Failure to Investigate Russian Interference in Brexit
‘Nothing less than the future of democracy is at stake’ says Caroline Lucas as a cross-party coalition and The Citizens win an unprecedented hearing over electoral safety and national security
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his all-out war on Ukraine almost a year ago, the Kremlin’s long-term plans for imperial expansion have come under closer scrutiny, particularly its use of ‘alternative measures’ to undermine the EU through propaganda and the funding of right-wing Eurosceptic parties in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. But what about the UK?
Though dismissed or ignored at the time, Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee’s 2018 report on disinformation and fake news outlined the impact of the Russian Embassy in London, and state-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik, in supporting the Leave campaigns.
It also revealed the role social media operations such as the Internet Research Agency and the now defunct Cambridge Analytica had in promoting Brexit. A year later, in 2019, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee concluded in its ‘Russia Report’ that Kremlin interference in elections was the “new normal” and there were “credible attempts” to meddle with the UK’s democratic processes.
For whatever reason, Boris Johnson succeeded in delaying the publication of the Russia Report in the run-up to the 2019 General Election. When – against Johnson’s wishes – it was finally published in July 2020, the report also contained the staggering admission that there had been no official investigation into the potential damage done to our democracy by what was, by then, clearly a hostile foreign power.
Johnson’s apathy over our democratic national security was not new. While Foreign Secretary in 2017, Johnson claimed there was “not a sausage” of evidence of Putin meddling in Brexit, despite his nominal role overseeing GCHQ at the time, which had been working with the FBI’s Special Counsel Robert Mueller on precisely that. Mueller had named Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud as a Russian agent in London. As the Observer and Byline reported, Mifsud met Johnson to talk about Brexit.
Alexander Temerko, a Soviet-born oligarch and a major Conservative donor, told the journalist Catherine Belton that he and Johnson spent time drinking wine while Johnson was at the Foreign Office, plotting the overthrow of then Prime Minister Theresa May. According to Temerko, Johnson had finally been persuaded to back Brexit in 2016 by a group of “eastern European businessmen”.
We do not know who these businessmen are alleged to be, but Sarah Vine, then wife of Michael Gove, wrote that Johnson agreed to join the Vote Leave campaign at a dinner with Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the Independent and Evening Standard.
Evgeny Lebedev was controversially elevated to the House of Lords by Johnson in 2020 – as Baron of Hampton in Richmond upon Thames and Siberia in the Russian Federation. His father, Alexander, a former senior KGB officer, is alleged to have been present when, as Foreign Secretary, Johnson left his security detail behind to travel to theLebedev’s Umbrian villa following a NATO briefing on the attempted murder of defector Sergei Skripal by Russian military intelligence using the Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury. Johnson denies any official matters were discussed, but Paul Caruana Galizia has reported for Tortoise that Johnson was offered a back-channel to the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov.
With all this evidence of the Kremlin’s close interest in British affairs, not least of all Putin’s public intervention insisting that Theresa May get on with Brexit, Johnson eventually changed his tune by 2022, telling the House of Commons: “I have seen absolutely no evidence of successful Russian interference in any electoral event”.
Given Johnson’s record of equivocal and often mendacious statements, combined with the admission from the intelligence services explicitly that they had never been tasked to investigate these matters, we cannot afford to rely on the former Prime Minister’s word.
In response to this glaring and potentially compromising lack of electoral and national security, a group of parliamentarians took the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last March, with the support of campaigning journalism organisation The Citizens. The cross-party group of MPs – including Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Ben Bradshaw and the SNP’s Alyn Smith – claim the Government is infringing our “right to free and fair elections” by failing to act on the findings of the Russia Report.
The court in Strasbourg has now indicated the case both has merit and may be designated an ‘impact case’. It has written to the Government inviting it to respond in detail to the allegations by 26 April.
Electoral Security – Not Reversing Brexit
The European Convention on Human Rights, though often falsely associated with the European Union, was set up in the aftermath of World War 2 to enshrine human rights across the continent with the support of politicians including Winston Churchill, François Mitterrand and Konrad Adenauer.
Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the Convention requires regular, free, secret-ballot elections that “ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people” and the claimants say this imposes obligations on states to ensure the integrity of their electoral processes including a duty to investigate possible interference by foreign hostile state
According to The Citizens, this is the first time a group of sitting MPs has taken the Government to the court at Strasbourg on the grounds of national security. If successful, the claim could have important consequences for the duty of governments across Europe to protect their elections from foreign threats and disinformation.
To Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, nothing less than “the future of democracy is on trial”. She points out that in the two and a half years since the Russia Report, the British Government “continually turned a blind eye to its jaw-dropping findings”. “With a general election on the horizon, and with Russia’s war on Ukraine showing no sign of abating, the stakes have never been higher,” Lucas adds.
Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter, agrees that the Governments failure to investigate Russian interference “constitutes a very serious breach of its obligations to the British people”. “A number of us have been warning about Putin’s real intent for more than 10 years,” Bradshaw says. “We know that his long-term strategy has been to destabilise and divide Western democracies and nothing that’s happened in recent British history has done more to destabilise Europe, and Britain’s relationship with it, than Brexit”.
However, Bradshaw denies the legal case is an attempt to reverse the UK’s decision to leave the EU. “Nobody is advocating reversing Brexit. This is about something far more fundamental than that. It’s about [protecting] the integrity of our politics, our democratic system and our electoral process from Russia and other hostile state actors, whose active strategy is to try to disrupt and destroy that model.”
Also giving evidence to the proceedings on behalf of the MPs is Lord Ricketts, who was Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and, from 2010-12, the British Government’s first National Security adviser. In his witness statement, Ricketts points out that: “Russia has long been known to use campaigns of disinformation to influence opinion and sow discord in Western countries including the UK. The massive increase in the usage of the internet and social media has greatly increased the potential impact of such campaigns.”
“Following the 2016 EU referendum, but long before the ISC Russia Report, there was a considerable and growing body of evidence that Russia was interested in and acting to disturb Western election processes,” Ricketts continued. “It is a matter of public record that both the U.S. election in 2016 and the French election in 2017 were subject to Russian interference…. Given the evidence that has now amassed of Russian interference, it is important to establish once and for all whether Russia attempted to interfere in the EU Referendum and subsequent UK general elections.”